The Life-Changing Impact of Seeing Yourself in Fiction: Representation for Muslims

by Amra Pajalic

For so long publishing has lacked diverse voices; the difference is that now people are noticing when prize lists include only white and middle class authors and don’t list any people of colour or authors from ethnic backgrounds. Some of the factors that contribute to this lack of diversity are the homogenisation of the publishing industry itself. The lack of diverse characters means that those from minority backgrounds don’t see their own stories and experiences being reflected in books they read.

In response to this the ‘own voices movement’ has grown within the young adult genre; it means authors who are part of marginalized groups write main characters who are from the same marginalized group. To contribute to this discussion this article will be focused on sharing recommendations of Muslims authors who write about Muslim characters.

Growing up as an Australian-Bosnian-Muslim person during a time when there was no diversity had an effect on me. There were no books that had characters that were mediating their own complex and inter-connected identities, and so I felt like my own identities made me wrong. The first time I read a book featuring a Muslim character I was an adult and attempting to write my own story in a young adult novel, but I was struggling for confidence and traction. I didn’t know if anyone would be interested in reading it, or if anyone would want to publish it.

Then I discovered Randa Abdel-Fattah’s young adult novel Does My Head Look Big In This? in which her character, Amal, was coming to terms with her own conflicting identity and various identity hyphens as an Australian-Palestinian-Muslim. Here was a book I could relate to. Amal was navigating a minefield of expectations of her community and the stereotypes of being Muslims, while also dealing with the normal adolescent milestones such as crushes and life.

Reading this book was life-changing. Even though Amal and I have very different experiences growing up Muslim—Bosnians typically don’t wear hijabs, while Amal decides to transform from a ‘part timer’ who only wears the hijab to school and religious gatherings, to a ‘full timer’ and wearing it whenever in the presence of males who are not relatives—I could still recognise so much of my own story in her. Abdel-Fattah blazed a trail for me and other writers of Muslim background to write and share our own stories of growing up Muslim.

My next favourite novel by Abdel-Fattah is a chick-lit novel titled No Sex in the City, about ‘twenty-eight-year-old-non-drinking-virgin’ Esma who is searching for a suitable match, who must be Muslim. Just like Candice Bushnell’s incarnation this book features four different friends who support each other; in this instance, four women of different faiths – Muslim, Jewish, Greek-Orthodox and Hindu. They form their own ‘no sex in the city’ club.

In this book Abdel-Fattah shines a light on the way some Muslim cultures mediate introductions between suitable males and females, with match-making taking place in their parent’s living rooms. In interviews Abdel-Fattah discussed that this is how she met her own husband.

Her main character, Esma, is a Muslim of Turkish descent, a deliberate choice on Abdel-Fattah’s part to write a Muslim character who does not share her own background in order to illustrate the fact that there are Muslims of different cultural backgrounds and that each have their own religious practices and interpretations. With this book Abdel-Fattah diversified the chick-lit genre and blazed another trail for people of colour and different ethnicity to follow.

If young adult or chick-lit are not your flavour of choice, Ausma Zehanat Khan is another Muslim author who writes about characters and worlds she knows in the thriller genre. Khan draws on her background as an immigration lawyer and her PhD research is on military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. I discovered her first novel, The Unquiet Dead, because of its focus on war crimes in Bosnia and the genocide of Srebrenica, and have followed her Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak police procedural series.

The partnership between Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak is one of opposites, Esa is a devout Muslim and second generation Canadian who is considered an outsider on the police force, while Rachel is a second generation police officer whose religious affiliations are to hockey. They represent two very different points of view and their partnership symbolises the way that we as a society should appreciate and learn from those who are different to us.

Khan writes stories of personal relationships and yet weaves a global web of intrigue and and uses the fictional lens to explore current socio-political events. Her second novel, The Language of Secrets, is inspired by a real life bombing attempt to blow up the Canadian Parliament. It explores the expectations of assimilation by Muslim communities in Western countries and racism in equating all Muslims as terrorists.

Among the Ruins is Khan’s third book and is set in Iran where Khattak is on holiday and becomes embroiled in a murder case that explores Iran’s politics and surveillance regime. A Dangerous Crossing is the fourth book, about a friend who works for an NGO who goes missing. It explores the Syrian civil war and humanitarian efforts to resettle refugees. A Death in Sarajevo is an online novella and explores an all-female fighting unit during the Bosnian war. Deadly Divide is the fifth thriller dealing with the aftermath of a mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec, which seems sadly prescient in light of the Christchurch Mosque shooting tragedy.

If you like reading non-fiction then check out Laughing All the Way to the Mosque by Zarqa Nawaz. In this memoir Nawaz shares what it is like to grow up Muslim in Canada and the idiosyncracies of religion and life, such as explaining “to the plumber why the toilet must be within sitting arm’s reach of the water tap (hint: it involves a watering can and a Muslim obsession with cleanliness “down there”)”1. Or try Good Muslim Boy by Osamah Sami, who writes with humour and heart about his misadventures “in faking a medical degree because the son of a cleric should become a doctor, and running away from an arranged marriage because his heart belonged to someone else2.” 

For something different you can read graphic novels such as Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, Ms Marvel featuring a 16-year old Jersey girl who is Muslim, and The 99 is the world’s first superheroes comic based on Islamic culture and society.

Reading is an opportunity to gain an insight into someone else’s viewpoint and develop empathy. In this day and age of knee-jerk responses and one-sided media coverage it is incumbent on us all to use the power of the written word to learn about other cultures. It is also important to support own voices and give those authors a platform so that publishers know there is a market, and so that emerging writers are emboldened to tell their own stories.

Amra Pajalic is is an Australian-based award winning author of Bosnian background, an editor and teacher. Her memoir Things Nobody Knows But Me is published by Transit Lounge (2019.) Memoir extracts have been published in Meet Me at the Intersection (Fremantle Press, 2018) and Rebellious Daughters (Venture Press, 2016). Her debut novel The Good Daughter (Text Publishing, 2009) won the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Civic Choice Award and she is co-editor of the anthology Growing up Muslim in Australia (Allen and Unwin, 2019) that was shortlisted for the 2015 Children’s Book Council of the year awards. She works as a high school teacher and is completing a PhD in Creative Writing at La Trobe University.  www.amrapajalic.com


Sources:

  1. Extract of blurb from Goodreads profile.
  2. Extract of blurb from Goodreads profile.